To many foreign observers the British political and parliamentary set up can seem a little bizarre: a sort of anachronistic parade of costume drama and archaic procedure. Our system relies on custom, often centuries old, and on checks and balances within the law. It is complex, full of pageantry and tradition; but it does work. Not restricted to the confines or interpretations of a written constitution, the British system is flexible to adjust to crises and the prevailing political mood of the times. However, every so often it throws up anomalies which seem to bend the arrangement. One such event is the appointment of Sir Alec Douglas-Home as Prime Minster in 1963.
Sovereignty in the United Kingdom is expressed as the ‘Crown in Parliament’, and that parliament is composed of a lower and upper house. The lower house, the House of Commons is a chamber of 650 members; each of whom are directly elected and represent a particular region, or constituency in the country. These Members of Parliament, or MPs, almost exclusively belong to one of the major political parties and will vote in the chamber according to the collective wish of that party.
The Houses of Parliament
Members of the upper chamber, or House of Lords are not elected, but fall into several categories: the Law Lords (lords of appeal in the supreme court upon their retirement as judges), the Lords Spiritual (senior bishops of the Church of England), Hereditary Peers (lords entitled to sit on the virtue of their inherited titles), and Life Peers (people appointed to the House as lords for the duration of their lifetimes, and who cannot pass on the title or right to their children). By far, the majority are Life Peers, and they represent a broad church of opinion and expertise: from captains of industry and scientists to seasoned politicians and cultural gurus. The Lords debate, scrutinise, and vote on legislation that has already been passed by the Commons. With less parliamentary pressure on their time, and without the threat of losing elections the lords are free to study the detail of prospective legislation in a way the lower house can’t. If they agree the Bill is sound then they pass it to Her Majesty the Queen for the Royal Ascent and it becomes law.
The Queen actually has a veto, but as all legislation going through Parliament has been initiated or approved by the Government, the monarch cannot be seen to disagree. The last time the veto was used was in 1708. The House of Lords does not have a veto. It used to, but a conflict with the Commons in 1911 saw it stripped of the privilege – by then it was seen as unconstitutional that an unelected chamber could thwart the policies and ambitions of a government elected on a manifesto of such policies. However, the Lords as part of their scrutiny can delay a bill, by sending it back to the Commons with amendments. It can do this three times before Royal Ascent will be given regardless of their objections.
As the Commons has all the real power, and its members are directly accountable to the British people, it has been the convention that the Prime Minister and the principal office holders are members of that house; although it is not uncommon to have senior ministers sitting in the Lords, due to their experience and rank within the party. The last Prime Minister to actually govern from the unelected chamber was Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury in 1902.
The office of Prime Minster, or more correctly First Lord of the Treasury, has developed over 300 years and today they wield more personal political power than most heads of government – certainly more than the US President. The reason being is that technically the PM is appointed by the Queen and as such exercises authorities and prerogatives in her name (the Crown). The monarch will chose the leader of whichever party can command a majority in the House of Commons – as this almost guarantees that the programme of legislation will progress. If a government fails to win support for its programme or its budget it has no option but to resign.
In reality, it is part of the smoke and mirrors pageantry of the system, but it evolved to be so. Parliament also sits by the Queen’s Grace and can be dissolved at her will at any time (although by law it cannot sit for more than five years before an election must be called). The Prime Minister can ‘ask’ the Queen to exercise her rights, and she will normally comply. Thus, the incumbent PM has a distinctive advantage in so far as he knows when an election will be held.
In 1963 the incumbent PM, Harold MacMillan, was gravely ill – indeed he thought he was close to death (in fact he’d live for another 23 years); so, he decided he would resign from the position. The problem was that the Conservative party at the time had no mechanism to appoint a new leader. Instead, party grandees, Churchill included, would ‘advise’ the Queen who to call as the new PM. Two main candidates emerged – Rab Butler, the Deputy Prime Minister; or Alec Douglas-Home, Earl of Home, who was Foreign Secretary. Butler was popular with the party, but most senior ministers refused to serve under him, Lord Home was the elder statesman, but an unelected and hereditary member of the House of Lords. The Queen came to visit MacMillan on what he presumed was his deathbed, and he advised she call upon Home to form a government – advice she didn’t have to take legally. However, she accepted the choice of the party bigwigs and unprecedented wheels were set in motion.
While his father held the title of earl, Alec Douglas-Home was able to sit in the Commons as an elected MP; and served as the Scottish Unionist (Conservative) member for Lanark from 1931 to 1945, and then again from 1950 to 51. He rose quickly through the ranks gaining ministerial experience under Chamberlin and Churchill. In 1951 his father died and he succeeded to the Scottish title: Earl of Home. He continued to serve both Anthony Eden and Harold MacMillan in various senior cabinet positions, until that fateful day when Buckingham Palace came calling.
Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Prime Minster
Lord Home then went to the Palace where the Queen gave him 24 hours to decide whether he could form a government; which he determined he could. Douglas-Home felt it was impracticable for a Prime Minister to govern from the Lords, and so using a new piece of legislation, the 1963 Peerages Act, he disclaimed and surrendered his titles. He had been made a Knight of the Thistle, which didn’t affect the constitution, and thus became ‘Sir Alec Douglas-Home’. As a commoner he was now free to seek election to the House of Commons. However, there were no available seats, and no elections on the immediate horizon. Britain therefore experienced a very unusual situation – a Prime Minister who sat in neither House of Parliament.
The safest Conservative seat in the UK was Kinross and West Perthshire, and the incumbent MP resigned, forcing a by-election for the constituency and Douglas-Home won by a massive landslide. He was now free to enter the Commons and govern. His tenure was short however. In the 1964 General Election the Tories lost to the Labour Party led by Harold Wilson. Sir Alec remained the leader of the opposition until July of 1965, during which time he revised the rules governing the election of the Conservative leader. Never again would the monarch have to choose, nor was it ever likely that a member of the Lords would be appointed. He was replaced by Edward Heath, who won the party ballot.
Douglas-Home remained an MP until 1974, during which time Edward Heath returned him to the post of Foreign Secretary. Upon his retirement he was bestowed with a Life Peerage and returned once again to the Lords as Baron Home of the Hirsel. He died at the age of 92 in 1995. He was succeeded by his son, the 15th Earl of Home; one of the remaining hereditary peers in the Lords today.
It is a constitutional anomaly that is unlikely now ever to be repeated, but it goes to show first the convention, anachronism and tradition of our system on one hand, and the flexibility to deal with such crisis when they arise on the other. The Strange Case of Sir Alec Douglas-Home serves to remind us of how incredible our democracy really is.